The sarcophagus gravestone of rav Abram Vita Cologna

Abram Vita Cologna was born in Mantua in October 1754. Until the arrival of Napoleon’s armies in Italy his main employment was as a shopkeeper. This profession, however, allowed him time to pursue his passion for literature and philosophy. Cologna studied the main texts from the Jewish tradition, had contacts with other Jewish intellectuals, became interested with the thinking of Moses Mendelssohn, one of the main figures of the Haskalah, the so-called Jewish Enlightenment. This school of thought aimed at renewing Judaism, opening it to the surrounding world and, more broadly, to modernity, all without compromising its existence as a well distinct and unique identity.

In 1796-1797 the arrival of the French and of the revolutionary ideals – including Jewish emancipation – opened new paths for Cologna. He became a politician and a public servant, joining the “upper house”  of the newly founded Cisalpine Republic, the Corpo dei Seniori, (Body of Elders) later entering the Consiglio dei dotti (Scholars’ Council) of the Italian Republic. He was a Francophile and very loyal to Napoleon, and this loyalty allowed him to move and act beyond the Italian stage.

In 1806, two years after crowning himself “Emperor of the French”, Napoleon summoned the Jewish Assembly in Paris, with the goal of resolving some potential contradictions between the laws of the Jewish religion and of the French Empire. Since a sizable part of Central and Northern Italy had been de facto annexed to the Empire, some representatives hailed from there as well. Amongst them, Abramo Cologna.

Decree of appointment of Abraham Cologna as Central Consistory of France’s Chief Rabbi (1808) – Archive of the Jewish Community of Trieste.

His activity in the Assembly and in the body that would eventually replace it – the Grand Sanhedrin – was not particularly intense. However, some of his speeches gained visibility on the press, in particular one that waxed lyrical about Napoleon, depicted as a “man of the Providence” and a «creative genius» capable of resurrecting Jewry from its own ashes.

From that moment on Cologna lived in Paris. He wrote – in French and Italian – poetry and speeches, he joined the Israelite Central Consistory of France (an assembly created by Napoleon to coordinate French Jewry), later being its president from 1812 to 1826.

That year, anyway, he decided to leave the French capital. Cologna took on the offer from the Triestine Community, which had considered him to replace the recently deceased Abramo Eliezer Levi. This choice seems to have been far from fortuitous. Levi had been a very conservative Rabbi that was openly against Reform Judaism, then moving its first steps in Europe. To follow him, the heads of the Triestine Community instead turned towards an intellectual who was an admirer of the Haskalah, a supporter of Napoleon and an advocate for emancipation.

Cologna’s tenure, however, was destined to be short. Already old, he died in 1832 and was entombed in via del Monte’s cemetery under this sarcophagus gravestone, which was typical for Rabbi’s burials.

Judaism was changing, and the same was true for the city. In 1843 the new cemetery opened, in part following the examples of Napoleon’s public health and city planning reforms, and the ancient Beth haOlam faded into a state of neglect. In 1909 Trieste’s City Council began dismantling the old burial site, transferring the remains into the Ossuary and removing – and often destroying – almost all of the gravestones. Among the few to survive were those belonging to the Rabbis, including rav Abramo Cologna: one of the first to leave the ghetto, and the last to be buried in the old cemetery.

Portrait of Abraham Vita de Cologna, engraving, 19th Century.
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